Vassar hosts writing seminar for Hudson Valley teachers

Steve Masson, a teacher at Highland Central High School, and his student, Hannah Peterson, prepare to be introduced for their lecture at the Hudson Valley Writing Project seminar this past Saturday. Photo By: Bonnie Kaplan
Steve Masson, a teacher at Highland Central High School, and his student, Hannah Peterson, prepare to be introduced for their lecture at the Hudson Valley Writing Project seminar this past Saturday. Photo By: Bonnie Kaplan
Steve Masson, a teacher at Highland Central High School, and his student, Hannah Peterson, prepare to be introduced for their lecture at the Hudson Valley Writing Project seminar this past Saturday. Photo By: Bonnie Kaplan

All teachers, regardless of the age of students they instruct, must write to teach writing. This is the goal of the Hudson Valley Writing Project (HVWP), a professional development program for teachers in the Hudson Valley, which held a free seminar this past Saturday in the Aula building.

The seminar was attended by almost 70 teachers, who teach classes ranging from kindergarten all the way to college courses. The seminar, titled “Inspiring and Engaging Student Writers,” dealt specifically with methods to get students to write more and about topics that interest them.

The event at the Aula was the first seminar in a series of four seminars to be held over the next few months. The next two events will be held at SUNY New Paltz, but will be followed by a much larger event at Vassar on April 18th that will feature Ralph Fletcher as the keynote speaker. Fletcher is a nationally-acclaimed writer and consultant to educators on teaching writing. The spring event, which is being sponsored by the Vassar Department of Education as this seminar was, will be open to the public and free to attend for anyone who is interested.

This seminar marked the first HVWP event held at Vassar, since the program is typically based out of SUNY New Paltz. According to Dr. Tom Meyer, a professor at New Paltz who is heavily involved with the HVWP’s Invitational Institute, this marks an excellent opportunity for the growth of the program.

“We’re very excited,” said Meyer. “[Having this seminar at Vassar] gives people from the other side of the river the opportunity to attend who might not have been able to make it to sessions at New Paltz.”

Meyer believes that the HVWP’s goal, getting more students and teachers writing, is vitally important across the academic board.

“Writing is something we teach and is necessary in all subjects,” said Meyer.

Before breaking off into smaller, more focused workshops, the attendees of Saturday’s seminars sat through a session led by Steve Masson, a teacher at Highland Central High School who has worked with the HVWP in the past, and Hannah Peterson, one of Masson’s students at Highland.

During his session, Masson discussed an idea he has implemented into his own teaching: the 80/20 principle. Originally developed by Google, the 80/20 principle works on the basis that 20% of the time spent working—or in the HVWP’s case, in the classroom—is time that can be used to pursue the student or worker’s personal interests. One day out of the week, Masson’s students are allowed to research and study anything that interests them, rather than a topic that he assigns the whole class. Later in the semester, the students will write a paper and make a presentation on the subject they have been exploring.

The lecture was very well-received, according to Professor Chris Bjork of the Education department, who worked with Meyer to bring the HVWP seminars to Vassar.

“It was great to hear him speak because this kind of learning is becoming rarer and rarer, as more teachers prepare their kids solely for tests,” said Bjork.

Bjork, who actually went to grad school at Stanford with Meyer, believes that the HVWP is a great way to help train educators and get more students writing.

“This is a really innovative and useful project,” said Bjork. “The objective of this lecture was to create engaging and inspiring learning for kids. Rather than complaining about the lack of attention to writing in schools I thought I should do something about it.”

Using funds from the Bechtel gift to the Education department, a grant which is dedicated for use only toward writing and literacy-related projects, Bjork worked with Meyer and other HVWP staff to bring the HVWP across the river to Vassar. Not only did it allow teachers from local Poughkeepsie schools to attend, Vassar students who are studying for teaching certifications were able to benefit from the workshop as well.

“It was great to see our student-teachers interact with innovative and inspiring public school teachers in the local area,” Bjork continued. “I was expecting more like 40 people, especially because it was 9:00am on a Saturday morning, but it was great to see nearly 70.”

Founded in 2001, HVWP runs many programs for students, in addition to its classes for teachers, throughout the year. These youth programs are week-long immersion programs that get students working in small groups with HVWP teachers. The students will write and revise their own work, which they will then share with the other members of their group. Since the youth programs were begun, nearly 300 students ages 7-17 have attended.

The basic idea behind the HVWP, according to Meyer, is that it is a network of teachers passionate about teaching and learning about teaching. Since 2001, the HVWP has had nearly 200 teachers and educators of all levels go through its programming.

Although the seminars are offered sporadically throughout the year, the HVWP’s Invitational Institute runs accepted teachers through several graduate-level courses that keep teachers involved for an entire year. in a program called “Leadership in the Teaching of Writing.” Meeting on Saturdays and for a week during the summer, the course also provides online forums for discussion and sharing of writing between the participants.

Meyer stated that local schools often hire the HVWP to run workshops for their teachers to supplement the seminars and workshops that the HVWP are running on their own.

“The organization provides opportunities for teachers to come together, do work in the classroom, and share it publicly,” said Meyer.

The focus of many of the workshops is to get the teachers in the programs to write themselves. For, both Meyer and Bjork agree, writing is best improved by doing more writing.

“There is no writing project without writing.” Said Meyer.

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